Tools

Cleaning out my desk, yesterday, I came across one of my favorite tools, an antique printer’s loupe. Most folks have seen a jeweler’s loupe, the funny eyepiece that jewelers use to assess the quality of a gemstone. Printers’ loupes are different. They’re used to assess the quality of printing, such as press registration, engraving quality, etc. They sit roughly an inch or so above a printing plate or sheet of paper.

loupe2My loupe is inherited. It was my father’s, and I can remember seeing it and playing with it when I was a kid. It has a simple, spring-loaded, brass frame and a magnifying lens. It folds into a nice, compact package and fits into a nifty leather case, the snap for which has been gone more than 50 years. Around the lens, the brass is stamped Bluff City Engraving Memphis 3, Tenn. It’s old. I don’t know how old. The best I can find out is that Bluff City Engraving was founded in 1907 and was still around during 1940s. I have no idea where my father got it, but it’s still useful. Since part of my work often includes supervising printing, I use it, and each time I do, I think of him.

I have a love affair with old tools. Many of them were much more elegantly made than tools today: walnut handles, details added to corners, graceful curves instead of straight lines, brass instead of aluminum, turned cast iron instead of stamped steel. I suppose that when cost is a factor, elegance is one of the first things to go. That certainly seems to be case with architecture. Maybe the simple truth is that the cheap stuff has not lasted, so I just can’t consider it.


My grandfather grew up in West Tennessee. He was naturally mechanical. Family legend has it that he and some friends took apart a Model T and reassembled it on the roof of Peabody High School. In later years, he ran the engineering department for Buring Foods, a large a meat processing company in Memphis that produced King Cotton meats. He died in 1977; I was nine. Now his tools and toolbox sit in my basement next to my own tools and toolbox. His hand tools, particularly wrenches and pliers have his initials, REL, engraved on them.

Perhaps my favorite of his tools is an offset, box-end wrench, with a 1-inch end and a 15/16ths-inch end. I like it because it’s broken in two places. The 15/16ths end is cracked, and the wrench itself is broken right in the middle. My grandfather mended both breaks with spot welds, even though the wrench is a Craftsman and he could just as easily have gotten a new one for free. Maybe that says something about his character. That he was the kind of man who when he broke a wrench by using too much force didn’t think he deserved a freebie. Or maybe simply the urgency of the job meant that welding the wrench was simply faster and easier.

wrenchBut now, looking more closely at the wrench, I know why he never returned it to Sears. He modified the 15/16ths end. The outside of the box is filed to be thinner, probably to fit into tight space, and overall height of the box has an eighth of inch ground off of it.

To some, the wrench is just a wrench, mostly useless because one end has cracked again. Me, I’ll never know why my grandfather modified the wrench. But I know he touched it and the other tools that say REL. He used it, maybe carried it around in his back pocket. And like the loupe, it fits my hand, and I can touch and use and carry it. If photographs are vehicles for memory, so too, are tools.

Invisibles

Morning coffee never tastes better than on Saturday, on my deck, savoring the early light as it slants, golden through the trees and the mist lifting from perennials and vegetables, blossoms back-lit in the eastern glow. At these times, occasionally, for brief moments, I see the invisible.

I sat there one recent Saturday, nursing my coffee. Dark clouds dotted the sky (what the meteorologists call partly cloudy, or maybe mostly cloudy, I really can never quite tell which is which.) The dew hung heavily on everything. As the sun winked through the slit between the horizon and the clouds, the mist caught it, and I saw a hidden world.

A taught, bright line first caught my eye, ten feet of shimmering spider silk stretched like a steel cable from the garden fence to a branch of the red oak reaching down.

I imagined the spider climbing from tree to fence or fence to tree. Although, I knew the spider drifted down from the tree, nudged by a breeze to the fence, but I couldn’t help thinking that its purpose was to climb into the green canopy of the tree, away from the man-made.

My eye followed the fence to where I knew it turned a corner, but the wire fence I knew was there was not. The dark wire of the fence receded as the sunlight called out more and more shimmering webs hanging in the gaps, hundreds of webs each carving out its space along our garden fence.


For a few years, I inhabited a desert city. Like most cities, its lights blocked the night sky. The moon could compete, but stars could not. I was a student. A hairdresser and a Culligan Man lived across the hall. She would cut my hair in their apartment for $10. He had a passion for guns and astronomy. He had a Garand M-1 for target shooting, subscribed to Sky and Telescope magazine, and owned a used reflector telescope.

crab_nebula

Crab Nebula, visible light courtesy of NASA

I had never seen a telescope like this, so he set it up one night in the parking lot, right downstairs from our apartments. It was four or five feet long and looked to me like it was made of black Sonotube, a heavy duty cardboard tube used as a form for concrete columns. The tube sat on a tripod, and it had special mounts for eyepieces. The whole thing had a motor that plugged into his truck’s cigarette lighter. The motor compensated for the earth’s rotation and kept the view in view.

Within five minutes, I stood looking through the telescope, feet solidly on asphalt smelling faintly of gasoline with the soft hum of the tracking motor barely audible above the jet engines and the adjacent six-lane street. I looked through the light pollution and air pollution at the Crab Nebula and back in time more than 6,000 years, seeing light that left 20 centuries or more before Gilgamesh met Enkidu or Moses walked in Ur. It remains among the most arresting things I have ever seen— made even more so by how I saw it, not in a laboratory or a college observatory, but standing next to a white Toyota pickup on a hot summer evening with a guy who delivered water for a living.

I inhabit a small, personal universe in the near field. If I look away only briefly, my life vanishes into nothing, becoming smaller and smaller until I disappear. In a parking lot or seated with a cup of coffee, I can be suddenly displaced by the infinite. I can’t quite decide if I like that feeling or not.